RUSTON KELLY ON NEW ALBUM, ADDICTION, HOW KACEY MUSGRAVES HELPED ‘PICK UP THE PIECES’
On the surface, life is damn-near picture perfect these days for Ruston Kelly. The singer-songwriter just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, is happily married to fellow musician Kacey Musgraves and, after generating critical buzz following last year’s Halloween EP, he’s released his debut full-length, Dying Star (9/7). But Kelly knows better than to think he’s in the clear. After all, those years he spent addicted to cocaine and amphetamine, many spent living in his van, they never really leave you.
“I’m learning that it’s something that’s always going to be there,” Kelly tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I can’t pretend that I have a life away from that anymore. For a while I was like, ‘I’m over that shit. I don’t do drugs anymore. I’m not an addict.’ And then every time I got to that place where I felt so strong and bold, something would come and all of a sudden it would trigger cravings and I’d be tempted.”
He’d suffered his only overdose in early 2016, a few months before he and Musgraves first met. But Kelly says he’s now in a fantastic headspace. Still, “there’s always a little bit of a shadow there,” he admits. “You don’t have to live in your shadow though. You can be on top of it.”
For the singer-songwriter, the best way to do exactly that is by bringing his truth to the world.
“As far as I’m concerned, artwork should be inherently transparent. As transparent as fucking glass,” the musician says of his knack for penning equal-parts heartbreaking and inspiring songs, always unflinching in their self-examination.
Kelly says his best ones — like Dying Star’s “Faceplant,” which rides a jaunty acoustic guitar groove while detailing the destructive behavior that characterized the worst of his drug-addicted years — back when he’d snort a mixture of amphetamine and caffeine pills “just to get the day started” — are his way of turning off his social filter and just being human.
“Whatever is occurring in the walls of your head, inside your brain, inside your psyche, you’re bringing out into that world and telling people,” he offers of his creative process. “Like, ‘This is what happened to me.’ I feel like there’s no other way to do that then to be as raw and honest as possible.”
In being so open, Kelly felt he could better come to terms with his own deficiencies — the same ones that first fueled him to pursue a career in music.
“For some reason I felt like I was born with some kind of hole in my soul,” Kelly explains of what sparked a teenage obsession with wise and world-weary artists like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and The Carter Family that, at 17, motivated him move from his native South Carolina to Nashville, if only to track down their ghosts. “Whether that’s in my chemical makeup, anxiety, depression or whatever it was, music alleviated that pain,” he continues. “Creating meant I was better able to understand myself and the world. I was trying to connect myself with what I thought was divine. I was really looking for bliss.”
Not that it came quickly: in his early twenties Kelly toured with the jam band Elmwood, got addicted to drugs and, at one point, tired of the grind, decamped to work on a chicken farm in North Carolina. By the time he returned to Nashville around 2012, he’d refined his songwriting and, while largely broke and living in his van, finally landed a publishing deal. Signed to BMG, for weeks on end he’d be holed up in upwards of 20 writing sessions a week. “It was miserable,” he says now. “But I knew I had to do it. And also, it beat shoveling chicken shit.”
He’d attend writing camps for A-list country artists even though he hated it. Kelly though kept his head down. “I told myself from Day One nothing could be worse than coming off of drugs in your van when it’s 100 degrees outside.” And plus, if nothing else, during this time he connected with some of Nashville’s most celebrated songwriters, including Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey, all of whom he’d later turn to as some of his most trusted collaborators and champions. Eventually, Kelly says, these new friends “were like ‘You need to stop co-writing and go work on your own music. Go back and live in your fucking van. Do what you have to do!’” So Kelly eschewed Music Row conventions and began writing the no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it songs he’d always intended to make.
With an ethos more indie-rock than country, he linked up with Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis who produced the Halloween EP. For Dying Star he headed to Texas’ Sonic Ranch studio and worked with close friend-producer Jarrad K (Kate Nash, Weezer). The process of writing his new album, he says, has been one of self-discovery, and required allowing him to laugh at his previous misfortunes. “And most of the time it hurts… But I’ve found a few things that work/I black out in a bar/I get high in my car,” he sings on “Blackout.”
Kelly says he’s “always believed that if you cannot laugh at something really terrible going on in your life then you can’t ever assume that you can have power over it.” He’s happy to hold up a mirror to his long-and-winding road to the present.
Thankfully, that also includes his finding and roughly one year later marrying Musgraves. When the pair met in early 2016 at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café, Kelly was onstage performing. Having recently overdosed, “I was in this strange state,” he says. “She really helped me pick up some of those pieces and remind me that what I’m doing is important and to understand what I need to do to pick myself back up.” He calls her “that classic receptive feminine force in a man’s life.” The pair bonded over “talking about art and music and also doing things the way you were meant to do them and not being apologetic whatsoever about it.”
With Dying Star finally set for release and Musgraves by his side, Kelly says he’s never had a clearer perspective on his life’s journey. “I’m learning what it means to be a man now,” he offers. “And that’s having things in your life like a family or a solid friend group, and taking your sobriety seriously. All these things seem to have been put in place in my life and have helped me understand what my point is here: living and breathing and creating. I guess that means I’ve landed in the right spot.”
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